Starglass - Phoebe North

"But you know, Terra, if you didn't want to be botanist, maybe you should have drawn something besides trees."

*** This review contains mild spoilers. ***
'Starglass' quietly tells the first half of hobby artist Terra Fineberg's coming-of-age story on board of the spaceship Asherah, which has been traveling towards the inhabitable planet Zehava for about 500 years and is due to land when the heroine is approximately seventeen, earning her bread in a specialist position and at least betrothed to someone council-approved. When an an asteroid had threatened to destroy Earth, numerous ships had been overrun with healthy, genetically promising individuals willing to survive. Terra's uninformed ancestor chose the safest option with the shortest list of applicants: An ark provided by a hierarchical society of secular, but strict Jews driven by the vision to create a completely new civilization by rearranging useful seeming scraps from Jewish rituals and morals and founded on the assumption that man is inherently evil and in need of being led.

I guess, from an objective point of view 'Starglass' is a well-written, slowly paced young adult novel with a nice message. Liking or not liking it is a matter of individual taste and private expectations. My expectations were dangerously high, because I have enjoyed (book) blogger Phoebe North's reviews and essays for a few years now. I admired her expressive style, her considerate opinion and her personal history of falling in love with fiction - especially science fiction - as a child with limited access to reading material. Her desire to reproduce the euphoria she had experienced when she devoured a Mercedes Lackey or an Anne McCaffrey in others resonated deeply in me. And since I always had a soft spot for interstellar travel - although I never actively watched series like 'Spaceship Orion', 'Star Trek' or 'Star Wars' because TV time was a controlled commodity, which was distributed in smallish doses in my parents' household - and plots set in confined, self-sustaining surroundings like space ships, cruise ships, submarines, remote islands, emergency shelters, floating cities and the like with bonus excitement added for futuristic world building, I was eager enough to get my hands on Phoebe's debut to preorder a copy. Noticing that Phoebe had consumed lots and lots of space-located films, shows and books and had concentrated deeply on travelling technology that would actually work or rather fail, I dreamt up a result that would be inevitably better than other attempts: More believable, more intricate, more creative and much more futuristic. The last wish was not founded on anything Phoebe said or wrote at all. It was fueled by my own fascination with interiors depicted in films like 'The Fifth Element' and 'The Island' or favorite books like 'Startide Rising'. The exceptional cover which had eventually been revealed for 'Starglass' should have alerted me to the possibility that the novel would present an albeit different world-building, but not one defined by holographic plants, wondrous architecture or intelligent suits spun from space worm spit. It did not. My homespun explanation for Terra's woolen 20th-century-style coat was that the heroine is wearing earth-made clothing in reverent remembrance of her dear mother - the writer of the nostalgic letter at the book's beginning. The ivy? Well, which cover designer had ever been able to resist the urge to add an artistic touch, a contrasting color?

The step into the reality Phoebe had concocted for the inhabitants of the Asherah therefore proved to be extra deflating for me. I had to switch gears from gleaming steel corridors, sparse, multi-functional accommodations, high-tech communication and unknown wonders to a sleepy, rickety 1,000-souls-village with an in-ground cemetery, a clock tower, a cobble-stoned shopping district, flocks of sheep grazing next to fish-filled streams, printed school-books, two-storied brick-houses that come with staircases and galleries and are surrounded by decorative gardens, and ancient, flickering computers that have been running for centuries and are used only to control the weather, house plant databases and keep people's bloodlines from going incestal routes. In short, life on the vast vessel reminded me much more of 'The City of Ember' than of any space adventure I have so far enjoyed (vocational and political matters included). But the comparison to Ember's slowly failing underground town and the comparison to my own childhood in a village that was inhabited by slightly less than 1,000 people brought additional food for thoughts and a slight incredulity to the surface: I wondered where the material for the various and dynamic fashion in the clothing shops comes from - there are, for instance, golden, shimmery wedding-dresses, and colors are in or out in the matter of a season. Are they made from sheep wool? Are there flax fields? Who spins the cloths? Who does the sewing? Are there a couple of factories? Terra's best friend wears lipstick. Does it make sense to produce decorative cosmetics for such a small group of potential customers? The Asherah's captain employs 50 guards. How can they be spared, when there is food, clothing, paper, household tools, school material and more to be made, machinery, housing and infrastructure to be maintained, the next generation to be hatched and taught and scientific experiments for life on Zehava to be conducted? Then there is the hatchery, where human foeti are nurtured and human DNA is tampered with, and there is the botany department, where new plants are created. Both institutions operate with only minimal computational support. Including me there were only eight children from my village in my grade even though some families had three children or more. Consequently I doubted that Terra's class would hold so many students of her age (I estimated between 35 and 40 on the day the vocations were distributed), when each couple has one girl and one boy. Until I reached the last chapters, in which Silvan Rafferty's grandmother is introduced in a side sentence, I had been convinced that the Asherathi eliminated their citizens as soon as they become elderly. Terra should call two sets of rather young grandparents, one uncle and one aunt her own. But there is only one estranged aunt How can people be estranged, when there is no physical distance between them? mentioned and there seems to be no relative available to help out with her brother's baby. Also, I was astonished to read that being outside by nightfall is considered to be dangerous on board. What does that guard do all day? All in all, the depicted society did not match my experience of a small community whose members know each other inside out and cannot avoid having intertwined lives. Well, the place I where I grew up was no certainly no cosmos of its own.

Another aspect I thought strange was that the mission's original members, who were chosen for their Jewish background, managed to let crucial elements slip instead of handing them down to the next generation. Doesn't a culture survive because of its stories? Terra vaguely identifies Israel as a place on Earth and has never heard of the Tora - But someone startled me with the sentence like "Where the the hell is the captain?" considering that God has been filtered out of the culture by its founders - . Would not the story of the Exodus have matched the Asherahti's search for their own land of milk and honey wonderfully? On that note I have to add that I did not mind the unfamiliar vocabulary (gelt, bashert etc.) at all. Maybe I have it easier as a non-native speaker. Unfamiliar words attack me all the time in books. I just let them come and relax. I could have relaxed with the puzzling world-building, too.

The responsibility for the two missing stars, however, carry the characters and their inability to make me invest emotions in their decisions. I believe that the lack of connection is a mainly personal thing and that I would not have noticed the slow pacing of the first half had the heroine's fate interested me more. And I am aware that judging the actions of a fictional character, whose education has been so thoroughly different to the people I am setting up as the norm, is pretty unfair or impossible. But I really did not get Terra most of the time although she is a victim of her situation: First no one looked after her, although she neglected her hygiene and her clothing, was late for school and obviously beaten by her alcoholic dad. Then she started to hide with her drawing equipment in the forest and lost interest in almost everything else – including vocational possibilities besides portrait artist and their consequences for her adult existence and her connections within the hierarchy. Although there are only two years to secure a required husband, the pressure to make a decision comes as a huge surprise to her. And although is it more than obvious that the rebel group’s agenda and method of keeping their followers in line are exactly as patronizing and as strongly aimed at reaching personal gains as the ship’s council’s, Terra apologizes for having asked for the leader’s name and the greater goal and hastens to meekly do as she was bid. I understand the lesson Terra learns during that phase is what finally makes her grow as a person. Still, I had to release two or three exasperated sighs on account of her too many. In addition, I do not think that her discovery of other equally bad people on board besides the captain and her friends is reason enough to grant her absolution and let her continue to play the dictator. Terra’s father, Arran, had already lost me at his wife’s funeral, when he had labeled his daughter as a burden and whined about having to spend the rest of his life without a mate. No change of heart or demeanor or explanation Trust me: There is an explanation, but it reached a hardened heart. could redeem him enough after that selfish outburst. His plans were too easy to foresee, too. Characters I instantly liked were botanist Mara Stone – although she missed so many chances to really enlighten Terra -, her young daughter and Terra's best friend Rachel. They were delightful - pinky swear. There was no joy at all for me in reading about Terra’s love matters. I appreciated that Terra has erotic dreams and longs to put a few fantasies into action regardless of a specific recipient. In spite of the thumbs up in this department, I felt the lack of a worthy love interest to swoon about severely. Both of the boys Terra starts having a romantic relationship with put the reader at unease for valid reasons and not just because they both stink. But by and by I really resented the nicely slender and geeky one’s clammy hands, his evasive looks and movements, and I slightly gagged when the privileged one entered the scene with his long, black, shiny curls, his slug-like, fat lips, his cocky smirk, his puppet-like ignorance, childish whining and condescending stance.

The best about the novel were the diary entries written by first generation passenger Frances, a grown-up woman whose lover had died. I felt her pain and her initial indifference and wished I could have read her complete story. Maybe Phoebe should attempt an adult-targeted scifi novel in the future? For even though I am not planning to buy 'Starbreak', 'Starglass' did not discourage me from still expecting great things to come from its author.